It really is anyone’s A-League championship
Phoenix's Daniel Cortes (left) pushes off Central Coast Mariners Pedj Bojic. AAP/NZN Image/SNPA, Ross Setford
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Rarely in the seven year history of our domestic competition has the battle for the championship been so open, with all seven teams harbouring at least a rough hope of lifting the golden toilet seat on the penultimate weekend of April.
While the Central Coast Mariners and Brisbane Roar battle it out this weekend for premiership (first-past-the-post) bragging rights, and Sydney FC host the Newcastle Jets in a mouth-watering clash to decide who fills the final spot in the six, fast forward to the finals and it looks as open as it ever has, with the most of teams bringing in some up and down form.
Here I cast an eye over the form of the seven sides still thinking about the championship.
Since going on a four-game losing streak in the middle of the season, Sydney has only lost twice in the past two months. There appears to be a real desire among the squad to send Vitezslav Lavicka off in style, with the team regularly coming from behind to rescue points throughout the season, just as they did on both recent trips to AAMI Park. Perhaps it’s a sign of how well respected the manager is among the playing group.
The Czech has made a few recent changes to his starting 11 that have paid off, with Joel Chianese and Ivan Necevski delivering at either end, and Nicky Carle doing well in a more withdrawn midfield role.
With one of the best away records in the league, if they do manage sneak in to the six they could pose quite a few headaches on the road, particularly if the experienced midfield can keep things tight.
A couple of weeks ago, on a streak of five wins from six games, the Jets looked to be one of the teams to beat, but the past fortnight has seen them pick up only one point at home, with a draw against Gold Coast United followed by the weekend loss to Brisbane.
Gary van Egmond, after a slow start, has had the team playing a more fluent style, with greater mobility and quick movement of the ball. Central to this has been the form of central midfield duo Ben Kantarovski and Jacob Pepper, while the experienced Francis Jeffers and Michael Bridges have been contributing from in behind the striker.
Another key has been the successful switch of Ruben Zadkovich to right back, which has seen Tarek Elrich contributing more in the final third than he did in the back third earlier in the season.
If the Jets are to go on and challenge throughout the finals, Jeremy Brockie needs rediscover his goal-scoring touch. He hasn’t scored in five weeks.
Undefeated in their past six, the Heart’s form, like most, has been a little up and down, with four of those six games drawn.
Central to their chances, you suspect, remains the form of their skipper, Fred, who has been excellent in recent weeks. On Saturday night he played the pivotal pass for both Heart goals, one with the right foot, the other with the left, both superbly weighted clipped balls in behind the Sydney defence.
The Heart, when they start their defending up the pitch, pressing the opponent high, are a formidable unit, utilising the pace of Mate Dugandzic and wonderful feet of Eli Babalj in forward transition.
Both youngsters have been in terrific recent form, and if Fred and his experienced central midfield partners, Wayne Srhoj and Matt Thompson, can find the legs to sustain the midfield press, the Heart might trouble a few.
Indeed, if they can replicate their display against the Roar, they’ll fancy their chances of springing the odd upset.
After winning four games on the spin between weeks 15 and 18, three of which were on the road, the Phoenix have been less convincing of late, losing three of their past six.
Of course, home ground advantage should certainly suit Ricki Herbert’s men in the opening weekend of the finals, but the manager will be hoping that midfielders Dani Sanchez, Tim Brown, Leo Bertos and Alex Smith can lift to take some of the burden off the central defenders and Paul Ifill.
If the Phoenix can re-discover some of their famed competitiveness, they have a player, in Ifill, who can win any final, but he will certainly need those around him to contribute.
After an eight game unbeaten run in the middle of the season, the Glory, like the Phoenix, have lost three of their past six.
When they were flying, there was a real solid look about Ferguson’s 11, with Steve Pantelidis joining Bas van den Brink at the back, behind a central trio of Jacob Burns, Liam Miller and Steve McGarry. It’s been physical and tough to break down.
In recent times Ferguson has had a few injures, but if he can get that spine back together for the finals, there is enough quality in the front third, through Shane Smeltz, Travis Dodd, Andrezinho and Billy Mehmet, to push most teams.
Indeed, if they consistently reproduce the quality and control they showed against the Mariners nine days ago, they’ll be tough to beat.
Not quite the machine they were in the opening third of the season, the Roar, in recent weeks, have at least rediscovered some of the mojo that went missing in the middle third of the campaign.
They are now seven games undefeated on the trot and, with five wins over that period, they have closed to within two points of the Mariners with a game remaining.
Go back even further and, after five losses on the spin in December, Ange Postecoglou’s men have only lost one of their past 13. It certainly appears the most compelling form-line heading into the finals.
But they no longer appear as invincible as they looked last season. Indeed, put them under pressure, press them high up the pitch, and the likes of Michael Theoklitos, Matt Smith and Erik Paartalu look nowhere near as comfortable on the ball.
But in Thomas Broich, Besart Berisha, Henrique and Mitch Nichols, they still have enough final third quality, and if the movement of recent weeks is any guide, the desire to back up last season’s success.
Even with their Asian Champions League commitments, most of the smart money is likely to be on the Roar.
Central Coast Mariners
Midway through the season, there was no doubt the Mariners looked the one to beat, but there was always likely to be an impact from Matt Simon’s departure to South Korea. So it has proved, with Graham Arnold so far struggling to replace Simon’s selfless work-rate, with John Sutton not yet up to standard.
Since February, the Mariners have lost four of their eight games, with three of those losses coming against fellow finalists Brisbane, the Heart and Perth Glory.
The reality for the club struggling to make ends meet is that they had no choice but to let go of both Simon and Rostyn Griffiths, but there’s no doubt it’s dented their title aspirations.
They might do enough to hang on and finish first past the post, but to have any hope during the finals they would need the young front three, Tom Rogic, Mustafa Amini and Bernie Ibini to flourish. Rogic, in particular, has been quite the revelation and already looms as the key man in their finals campaign.
With the need to factor in their Asian Champions League commitments, it’s a big ask for Arnold’s men, but if they can rediscover some of their famed defensive steel, they’ll always be tough to beat.
Follow Tony on Twitter @TonyTannousTRBA